Monday, September 22, 2014

Why write at all? Kelly Luce's answer

Kelly Luce's first book is a collection of short stories: Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. I bought it because I have a consuming interest in Japan and things Japanese and because the book won the Indifab Editor's Choice Prize for Fiction, i.e., the best independently published book of fiction in 2013. (The publisher is Austin (Texas)-based A Strange Object; Three Scenarios is its first book.)

Kelly Luce
While not all the ten stories are equally engaging (what story collection has all winners?) they are all interesting in their own way. Most of the stories are told by or featuring Japanese characters who act and sound Japanese—not, I think, an easy thing to pull of. There is a tendency when Westerners write from the inside of a foreign sensibility (and the Japanese sensibility is very foreign) to impose Western assumptions, expectations, attitudes on the characters or to write as if they are incomprehensible exotics. Luce does neither. Her characters for the most part are recognizably human in a recognizable world.

To give you a sense of Luce's scope: Mrs. Yamada sees kanji characters burned into her toast and realizes they can tell how a person is going to die, which is not any more strange that seeing Christ's face on a piece of toast. Middle-aged Masahiro and his younger wife go to a seaside in for their honeymoon and begin to secrets about themselves and each other. A young woman goes to a temple festival while mourning her lover. A retired professor invites a former student to be tested by his "amorometer," which measures one's capacity to love.

To give you a sense of Luce's writing, here's the opening paragraph of "Ash": "The year we lived in Japan, the volcano at the edge of town hiccupped, covering everything in six inches of of heavy golden dust. The sky turned yellow, with clouds so low they were like ceilings. No one could remember anything like it." Although Luce is working on an MFA, her writing does not suffer from what I would call the MFA disease: overly sparkly writing, the kind of writing that calls attention to itself by its garish—if apt—metaphors and language.

Luce has a "More to read" section on her blog in which she has included several interviews about herself, her writing, and Three Scenarios. I was so impressed by the stories that I wrote her with my own questions, which she answered:


How did you happen to go to Japan? 
I went in 2002, as a teacher in the JET Program, which places assistant English teachers in public school classrooms alongside a Japanese teacher of English. I didn't know much about Japan, but I wanted to go somewhere different and far away--to get a sense of the world's bigness. 

What did you do during the three years you were there?
I worked as a JET teacher in Kawasaki for about ten months, then spent a week in jail, then moved to Tokushima City (Shikoku) for two more years, where I ran an English immersion program for children ages 0-10. In Tokushima, I joined a professional Awa Odori dance troupe, learned to surf badly, hitchhiked, developed a love for konyaku jelly and Chu-hi, and sang hours upon hours of karaoke (sometimes alone.) Tokushima's also where I met my husband. 

What stands out about your experience in Japan? Can you tell if that had any effect on you as a writer and if so, what?
My time in Japan was formative. The experience of living abroad, in a country where I was (at first) functionally illiterate, dumb and deaf, taught me to observe. Making my way through stressful and uncomfortable situation--culturally, linguistically, logistically--on my own taught me confidence in my abilities to learn and grow, which gave me the tenacity to keep writing even if I failed. Japanese art, music, philosophy, and the notions of subtlety, the beauty of the ephemeral (mono no aware), and wabi-sabi sunk deeply in as if they belonged there.

Why did you go for an MFA? What do you think was the major benefit of the MFA experience/expense?
I almost didn't. I went to my first MFA program right after I returned from Japan, in 2005, simply because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I dropped out after a semester because between teaching, classwork, and the part-time job I took to supplement my stipend, I wasn't writing. What I really wanted was to live someplace beautiful, and write as much as I could until I either got better, or got sick of writing. I moved to northern CA and got a part-time nanny job and lived in a cabin in the woods for about seven years. While there I joined a writing group, read a lot, and went to writing conferences. It was a piecemeal self-education. I don't have teaching aspirations, so I figured there was no point in getting an MFA, especially if it would be costly. There was one program, though, that I occasionally applied for because of the generosity of its support. After three attempts and ten years, I got in.

I am incredibly lucky to be at the Michener Center for Writers, which not only gives its students three years to write, but also pays them to do so without requiring them to teach. It's impossible to exaggerate the benefit of this. On top of that, there's the friends I've made, and the opportunity to study with Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Adams and Rachel Kushner, and being involved with the very active wider Austin literary community. 

What is the first thing (or among the first things) you ask another writer?
Who's a woman writer you've discovered recently whose work you admire? 

Do you have a regular writing schedule? If so, what is it?
So much of writing is thinking, incubating. In that sense, I suppose I do write every day. I observe, mull, take notes. It sounds trite, but it's a way of life. So, no, I don't have a set schedule, and I don't write fresh words every day, unless you count tweets and emails.

Do you keep a journal?
I keep notes that I add to daily--scraps of conversation, funny sights, intriguing news stories--and I keep a journal when I travel. I also write a lot of emails, all of which I save, and which serve as something of a record of my thoughts and feelings. I haven't written a daily journal strictly for myself in a long time.  

What book(s) have you read recently that you think others should try?
So many great books have come out recently! Thunderstruck, by Elizabeth McCracken, is an exquisite story collection, and just nominated for the National Book Award. Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is strange and unique and beautiful. Nina McConigley's Cowboys and East Indians is a wonderful story collection that just won the PEN Open award. And I've read two of Rose Tremain's novels recently--The Road Home, and Sacred Country, both of which were stunning.

Why do you think you do it—write at all?
It's the only way for me to know what I think. 


I recommend Three Scenarios to anyone who is interested in reading a new, original voice.

Friday, September 19, 2014

An extraordinary novel by Alistair MacLeod

Recently I wrote about Alistair MacLeod's collected short stories, The Island. The collection was so good, I was reluctant to begin his novel, No Great Mischief. For one thing, he reportedly worked on it for years and I was afraid he might have worked it to death. For another thing, it is billed as a family saga and I am not much interested in family sagas. (My failure, but there it is.) Finally, what could MacLeod say about life on Cape Breton that he had not already said—and said with incredible power and grace—in the stories?

A lot.

No Great Mischief is an extraordinary novel. It is narrated by Alexander MacDonald, a middle-aged Canadian orthodontist who grew up on Cape Breton. It begins with Alexander's visit to his much older, alcoholic brother Calum in a Toronto flop house. It ends with Alexander and Calum returning to Cape Breton. In between we meet the extended family; Alexander has a twin sister, three older brothers, grandparents, cousins, and friends. We hear the family stories, how the first Alexander MacDonald left Scotland, his first wife dead, his new wife dying on the voyage, arriving in the New World with his twelve children, one of whom had given birth along the way. We hear the family stories and we watch Alexander's parents and oldest brother die one March evening as they cross the ice to their home:

"Everyone could see their three dark forms and the smaller one of the dog outlined upon the whiteness over which they traveled. By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and out there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still. Grandpa watched for almost a minute to be sure of what he was seeing and then he shouted to my grandmother, 'There is something wrong out on the ice. There is only one light and it is not moving.'"

Alice Munro says, "You will have scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever," and I can only agree. The Cape Breton winters, working in a uranium mine, migrant workers picking seasonal produce, the primitive existence of Alexander's older brothers who sleep with loaded rifles under their best and shoot at deer if the moon is right:

"And if the shot were true, they would race down the stairs, fastening their trousers as they ran, and gather their long-bladed knives from the waiting kitchen table. Out in the field, lit by the 'lamp of the poor,' they would cut the throat of the still-thrashing deer so that the blood would run free and not taint or ruin the valuable meat. They would work quickly and efficiently, disembowelling and skinning and cutting the carcass into quarters, their knives flashing in and out of the body's cavities, severing the grey ropes of the intestines and separating the still-shuddering redness of the heart. Later they would pack the meat within buckets and lower it into the well as a means of basic refrigeration...."

As The New York Times reported, No Great Mischief is a multigenerational story that intertwines the fates of Cape Breton's fishermen and miners with those of their Scottish forebears. It reflects MacLeod's abiding concern: the tensions that pervade a community caught between the pull of tradition and the pressure of assimilation. The narrator has forsaken his island roots for a life of bourgeois discontent and the novel is enriched by Gaelic speech, old Scottish songs, and evocations of the land and the sea. Unbelievably moving.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An oldie but goodie from Stephen King

A couple weeks ago, someone in a LinkedIn group recommended the movie "Stand By Me" as the archetypical coming of age movie. I don't know that I've ever seen it, but I knew I'd never read the novella on which it's based, Stephen King's "The Body," one of four novellas in Different Seasons. Viking published the book in 1982 when King was 35, and he wrote "The Body" in 1975 when he was about 28.

The ages are significant because in "The Body," King is recalling himself and his world as a 12-year-old boy in a small Maine town. In some ways, the story is simple. Four buddies about the same age hear about the body of a boy who has been missing, decide to go to find it, and become heroes because they found the missing boy. Because the dead boy had apparently been hit by a train, they will follow the train tracks on foot for the thirty miles to reach the body. On the way they have a number of adventures including spending a night in the woods. I don't want to say much more, because if you have not read the story, I recommend it and do not want to spoil it.

"The Body," however, is much more than a boy's adventure story. It is a story about time and change and loss. The first two sentences of the story proper are, "We had a treehouse in a big elm which overhung a vacant lot in Castle Rock. There's a moving company on that lot today, and the elm is gone." The elm is gone and the narrator's youth is gone.

The narrator identifies himself as Gordon Lachance, a successful mid-thirties writer of horror stories, much like Stephen King. "The Body," which is not a horror story and has no supernatural events, does include two samples of "Lachance's" work, a student short story that the narrator criticizes more harshly than I would have, and a more polished story that "Lachance"sold to Cavalier magazine. Although these have nothing to do with the adventure of finding the dead body, they work within the story's context, adding depth and complexity.

And King has interesting things to say about writing and stories: "The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that's why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings . . . The only two useful artforms are religion and stories." One of "Gordon's" 12-year-old buddies tells him "Those stories you tell, they're no good to anybody but you, Gordie. If you go along with us [his three friends] because you don't want the gang to break up, you'll wind up just another grunt, makin C's to get on the teams. You'll get into High and take the same fuckin shop courses and throw erasers and pull your meat along with the rest of the grunts . . . Nothin'll get written down. Cause you'll just be another wiseguy with shit for brains."

The story does show its age in phrases like "Do you dig?" "If anyone was rankin out my dad—" and more. And there's an occasional stretch that does not work for me: ". . . as I said it some guy pole-vaulted in my stomach. He dug his pole all the way into my balls, it felt like, and ended up sitting astride my heart."

Nevertheless, I am glad I followed up on the recommendation and have read it. If you haven't, it's worth looking up.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How to know when you're writing something real

Matthew Thomas, a former high school English teacher, who reportedly sold his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, for more than $1 million said something interesting in the September 7, 2014 New York Times Book Review.

"I learned not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention. The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I'd look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously, because you don't want to run up against your limitations in craft, intelligence or heart. It's much easier to duck the really vital material, but it kills what you're writing to do so, kills it instantly."

As one who has avoided writing the emotionally challenging or conflict-laden, I know whereof Thomas speaks too well. It also explains why so many memoirs and amateur novels are so unsatisfying. The author has ducked and by doing so killed the work.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What if a critic hasn't played fair?

An acquaintance asks, "What do you do if the critic hasn't played fair? What do you do about negative reviews?"

Nothing.

Do nothing in public. Don't try to correct the record (unless the review has clear factual errors, and even then stick to the facts). Don't try to justify or explain yourself.

Privately console yourself that the reviewer is an idiot.

A case in point: Here is one of the 24 one-star Amazon reviews for a book I thought was a masterpiece: "Extremely hard book to read and understand what was going on. Could not even finish it. Could have been summarized in two pages with life principles it was raising." This reader is an idiot.

I am not alone in my admiration. The book has received 509 four- and five-star reviews, by the way.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moscow Bound, a thriller set in Putin's Russia

According to his biographical note, Adrian Churchward lived and worked in Moscow, Budapest, and Prague as an East-West trade lawyer between 1984 and 1998. He was "one of the few Western lawyers working in the day-to-day arena of President Gorbachev's liberalization process of perestroika and glasnost."

Scott Mitchell, one of the two point-of-view characters in Moscow Bound, is a young British human-rights lawyer who is living and working in Moscow. When the book opens, Scott, flying back to Moscow, has just won a significant case against the Russian army in the European Court of Human Rights for its crimes in Chechnya. This has had two effects: Scott is a hero to Chechnyians (which gives him at least a few people he can trust in Moscow's house of mirrors), and he has pissed off the Russian army (which removes him from the plane under guard and interrogates him).

Now add a gorgeous young Russian mother, separated from her oligarch husband (powerful enough to dine occasionally with Putin). Ekaterina, who with good reason does not trust the Russian government, asks Scott to help her find the father she never knew, someone spirited away by the KGB years before. Scott reluctantly decides to help her.

Now add a second POV character, Lieutenant-General Pravda of the GRU, military intelligence. A body has been fished out of the Moscow River, someone who Pravda knows should not have been in Moscow, someone who has been assassinated in a particularly suspicious manner. When an elderly pensioner is murdered in the same way, Pravda, an honest and patriotic soldier, realizes an explosive military secret is at risk.

The book is a lot of fun and I gobbled it down. How is it possible for an English human-rights lawyer, even one who speaks fluent Russian, to penetrate the various circles within circles to find a long-vanished father? What is the connection between the GRU and the murdered men? Who are the puppet masters above Pravda and his competitors in the Russian Federation Security Service? If you can't trust the government, if you can't trust the police, if you can't trust the military, how can you live?

Moscow Bound may be Churchward's first novel, but he handles the various threads competently and his knowledge of Russian life in the 21st century adds depth and color to the story. I noticed only one or two unfortunately convenient coincidences among the events, and there seemed to be one or two threads that he never tied off—although that may be my fault because I was having so much fun on the ride and wasn't paying attention. Nevertheless, it's a thriller set firmly in a world very much like our own, one of my criterion for a book worth my time.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Here's a letter to make your day

A friend writes, "I just finished The Girl in the Photo. I have so much to say about it, but I'll try to be articulate and succinct as I write about my reactions and feelings.

"First—congratulations on producing a novel of such subtly and complexity, one that weaves family life, travel, death, love—all into one well-crafted tapestry. This book is even better than the last one, which I enjoyed immensely.

"One major thing that I really like here is that you don't have to rely on pathology, violence or deviance to create an interesting story. Like the Barchester novels by Trollop (which I love), you manage to make happy people interesting.

"Of course, by happy I don't mean free of problems. I'm sure you understand that. It takes a lot of wisdom and humanity to take 'regular' folk and weave a great plot around them with all the insight and compassion that you do. I stayed up half the night a few days ago in order to finish it. The ending was SO satisfying.

"I especially like the way you balance the two main characters, Abbie and David, with neither predominating, so that the reader can see things from both their perspectives. I like the way you use the father's memoir, leaving it up to the reader to interpret the facts about his life by placing his story against those of the other people who knew him, and letting us get a fuller picture of his personality.

"I like the way you so delicately handle the American-Japanese cultural issues—with just enough explanation so that the average American reader can sense some of the important differences. AND I like your description of life and values of the '50's while deftly switching to the 21st century.

"I like the political commentary and the way you touch on religion, music and atheism. Well, the list goes on."